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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Coast to coast, will all US cities look the same? Of course, the answer is no. But a mere half century ago, each certainly had more of its own distinct personality...with its own local stores, restaurants, movie chains, newspapers, etc. And a road trip across the US would not look like the same shopping strip had been cloned as it does today across the nation.

What was once localized has become nationalized (even globalized) and what were once suburban characteristics have increasingly become part of the urban framework. It it hard to deny that US cities have been disneyfied to the point of becoming charactures of what they once were.

Have we reached that point where we really have frightening homogenized the great American city???

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Critics of 'suburban' cities long for the old urbanity -- or chaos
John King
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
sfgate.com, San Francisco Chronicle
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Most of 2007 lies ahead, but here's a wager: This year's best book on contemporary San Francisco already is in print.
And I'll stick to that wager even though the title is "The Suburbanization of New York: Is the World's Greatest City Becoming Just Another Town?"
Geography aside, this collection of 14 essays captures the sense of frustration shared by anyone bothered that prosperity in American cities seems inseparable from corporate branding. Worse, the newcomers with the wherewithal to pay obscene housing prices don't seem interested in the politics that a prior generation held dear.
In other words, there's a changing of the landscape and a changing of the guard. And a fear that something irreplaceably, uniquely "urban" is being lost.
If all this sounds a bit fuzzy, so is "The Suburbanization of New York." It contradicts itself from essay to essay and page to page. For every shot of fervent insight there's a blast of rhetorical excess. It's a book I argued with start to finish -- but eagerly kept reading because it captures my own mixed feelings about what's evolving around us.

Both the insight and the excess are on display in the essays by Maggie Wrigley and Francis Morrone that bookend the collection.
In "Love and Loss in New York City," Wrigley pines for the good ol' days of 1984, when she, as "a little rocker," discovered her own Valhalla, "dirty and dangerous but full of life, color and action." She reminisces of Times Square at night, where "buy a bag of weed and you would have to go back to replace the switched bag of shake and stems."

Wrigley admits in passing that "there were terrible street battles and gunfights, and people died." But her outrage is reserved for today's Manhattan, where "Times Square is Disneyland" and the East Village is "the playground of identically styled college girls and boys with Gap clothes and perfectly blonded hair."

"I miss the mayhem," Wrigley concludes.

And what does Morrone miss? The civility.

Yup, in "Jaunty and Decorous" he sighs that in today's Manhattan "we have an absence of good breeding." This is shown by such transgressions as rampant cell phone use and "the buffeting action of backpacks" in subway cars -- all because "city streets are dominated by people who have never assimilated the urban etiquette, who have never become urbane."
And no, this isn't an anti-immigrant screed. "At any given moment, the temporary population of the city overwhelmingly comprises people who either now live in suburbia or who have grown up in suburbia," Morrone writes. "I suspect that it is this overwhelming suburban presence that has made Manhattan seem a simulacrum of itself, a pod-city."

So Wrigley misses anarchy, Morrone misses manners, and both are convinced that the culprit is a suburban state of mind.

Analyze either position with strict logic, and each has more holes than the "Flashdance"-era sweatshirts that were popular when Wrigley arrived from her native Australia. Wrigley, for instance, ignores the fact that the number of homicides in New York City fell from 1,450 in 1984 to 571 in 2004. Gee, maybe there's something to be said for muted mayhem after all.
But hey, cities aren't logical. They stir our passions even as they elude our control.

I see this in something as simple as a stroll up Powell Street from Hallidie Plaza to Union Square. Make no mistake, the stretch is "better" than it has been for decades: not as dangerous, not nearly as tacky or forlorn. And yet. The storefronts roll out a steady parade of predictable names, chains found in shopping zones from Los Angeles to London.

It's as though something place-specific has been erased. But who's to say that my definition of Powell Street rings true except to me? My norm is what Chronicle columnist Herb Caen in 1980 described as a street of "schlock shops and junkfood palaces" that "has gone to hell since I was a kid."

Or consider the hostility that some people feel toward Mission Bay, the redevelopment district sprouting near the Giants' ballpark. The rap is that, yes, it's too "suburban" -- filled with residents who don't mind chain stores, who like the location partly because of the easy access to Silicon Valley.
All of which, presumably, violates the San Franciscan code that urbanites are supposed to bicycle to work or take Muni, decrying every lurch and stall along the way.

I have problems with Mission Bay, too -- but 16-story slabs are not suburban. Nor is a policy that reserves 1,700 of the 6,000 housing units for low-income residents. But facts aren't nearly as powerful as the notion that it doesn't belong.

If "The Suburbanization of New York" were a complete rant, it would quickly go stale. But it's kept fresh by smart essays on such topics as the increasingly large immigrant population.

There's also a sharp look at Times Square by Marshall Berman, author of such books as "All That Is Solid Melts Into Air." He doesn't dismiss the hectic scene as Disneyland, a la Wrigley, or refer to it as a "giant corporate theme park," as does the book's preface.

Instead, Berman studies the waves of social change since Times Square came into being in the 1880s. He describes the sense of freedom the Square offered women of his mother's generation, then surveys the lively scene now beneath the square's corporate-controlled electronic billboards.
"The overflowing life on the ground today proves the hopelessness of the long crusade to kill the street," Berman writes. "Times Square is a place where, in spite of everything, modern life goes on."

The same holds true for San Francisco. Even if modern life isn't all that we'd like it to be.

"The Suburbanization of New York," edited by Jerilou Hammett and Kingsley Hammett. Princeton Architectural Press, 192 pages, $24.95.
 

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fear of change is central to the human experience. every generation, as it ages, goes through these "but things were better in my day" whinings.
 

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Most of the apartment buildings in San Francisco look the same as it is. They just happen to be old so that translates to them being more charming or whatever. How arrogant to crap on Mission Bay developments. I'm glad the writer cut down the detractors with this line: "But facts aren't nearly as powerful as the notion that it doesn't belong."
 

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I think the key to your question revolves around not the physical structures themselves, but their surroundings. For example, in the Seattle suburbs you see the same chain stores you see everywhere else...Lowes, Wal-Mart, McDonalds, etc., but if the surroundings are preserved, (in Seattle's case, big evergreen trees), then cities will continue to have their own looks. (I use Seattle as an example, but many US cities have unique characteristics that should be saved.) I think this is an important point for developers. I have no problem with you bringing your "same look" chains to my city, but try and keep some of the local feeling, the local look, as it were. This will be the only way to survive this "sameness".

BTW, Wal-Mart, of all chains seems to be a leader in this department, recently building stores that blend into their surroundings in a better way. Wal-Martt? Who wudda thought?
 

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Live and Let Live
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Perhaps most cities dont look the same, but it seems most middle class suburbs sure as hell do.
 

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I say no. Global brands will always be around, as much as some people aren't willing to admit, but global brands cannot meet the needs of everyone for everything. Smaller companies will always find a niche where the biggest companies would have a harder time specializing in. So, just as there will always be global companies, there will also be local companies.

Additionally, the culture of cities and regions are different in different parts of the country. While I might feel kind-of at home when I visit Philadelphia, Baltimore, or New York City, since these three cities and Wilmington are all along I-95 and closely linked together in countless ways, I always feel like I'm in a whole other world when I visit my grandparents in Buffalo. The culture there is completely different than that of cities in the Bos-Wash corridor. Simiilarly, when I was in Tampa last Fall, it felt like a completely different place. This is even though there are hundreds of people from the Northeast living down there.

Lastly, different regions of the country have different climates and ecosystems. Grid patterns, partial grid patterns, and suburban winding roads are the same anywhere, but a partial grid pattern in suburban Las Vegas still feels different than a partial grid pattern in Northern New Jersey.

There are plenty of things to make each city and region different. I think the problem is that the people that think that evrything is the same are focusing on just a few aspects and not paying attention to anything else.
 

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Discussion Starter · #12 ·
the merits of the book itself undetermined, the premise itself does have some validity.

in a mere half century, we really have shifted the decisions and individuality of our cities from local to national (and international) choices.

it would be virtually impossible to ignore the homogenization that has taken place in US cities coast to coast. It's no longer the interstates that look the same from Maine to California. The cities themselves have definite elements of being carbon copies of each other, too.
 

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Discussion Starter · #13 ·
totally.

the holocaust was awesome.

slavery kicked ass.

the black death was wicked cool.




whatever, everything sucks, and it always has sucked.
Dan, I suspect there'll be some scratched, perplexed heads in the future when they analyze the current Paris Hilton era as well.
 

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Dan, I suspect there'll be some scratched, perplexed heads in the future when they analyze the current Paris Hilton era as well.
Of course. But we don't know what will come in the future. We can't analyze too well how the present day is going to be looked at by future generations.
 

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yes and no. just about everything built postwar has no real connection to the region it is built in and thus why buildings and architectural styles from this point on all look alike. most people can't tell apart the cityscapes of houston dallas, LA, atlanta, phoenix or minneapolis becuase the buildings pretty much look alike while ray charles could point out new york, boston, DC, san fransciso, philly or chicago. cities that were fortunate enough to build an identity before WW2.
 

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Discussion Starter · #16 ·
yes and no. just about everything built postwar has no real connection to the region it is built in and thus why buildings and architectural styles from this point on all look alike. most people can't tell apart the cityscapes of houston dallas, LA, atlanta, phoenix or minneapolis becuase the buildings pretty much look alike while ray charles could point out new york, boston, DC, san fransciso, philly or chicago. cities that were fortunate enough to build an identity before WW2.
you're on target with those cities with the post-WWII growth, jmanusco, but the very buildings you have talked about have creeped into new york, boston, DC, san fransciso, philly or chicago that they now share a lot with their peers with the later growth spurts.
 

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make it so...
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you're on target with those cities with the post-WWII growth, jmanusco, but the very buildings you have talked about have creeped into new york, boston, DC, san fransciso, philly or chicago that they now share a lot with their peers with the later growth spurts.
yes they have but thankfully, those older cities retained much of their original uniqueness to counter the cookie-cutterness of the new construction. pretty much all new development everywhere is generic.
 

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Discussion Starter · #18 ·
yes they have but thankfully, those older cities retained much of their original uniqueness to counter the cookie-cutterness of the new construction. pretty much all new development everywhere is generic.
jmancuso, i think this goes far beyond cities and brings up a broader question: how do you individuality and uniquess in face rampant technology??????
 

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Part of the problem is that redevelopment is increasingly dominated by large firms that want large parcels of land to redevelop all at once. Instead of an incorporation of many different designs and individual owners onto a landscape, it is more profitable for a developer to build all at once, gain publicity by incorporating well-known brands, and then manage the property as if it were a mall rather than a public space.

What scares me is that in many "town center" redevelopments nowadays, the streets and sidewalks are not even public! The developers construct their "town" as an outdoor mall, and manage every aspect of it to promote the success of their tenants and maximize the value of their land as they see fit.
 

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Discussion Starter · #20 ·
Part of the problem is that redevelopment is increasingly dominated by large firms that want large parcels of land to redevelop all at once. Instead of an incorporation of many different designs and individual owners onto a landscape, it is more profitable for a developer to build all at once, gain publicity by incorporating well-known brands, and then manage the property as if it were a mall rather than a public space.

What scares me is that in many "town center" redevelopments nowadays, the streets and sidewalks are not even public! The developers construct their "town" as an outdoor mall, and manage every aspect of it to promote the success of their tenants and maximize the value of their land as they see fit.
CU, do you get a kick out of the faux differences they put into the facades to give the illusion that these are actually separate structures?

What a missed opporunity. Of course there is a place for the large, planned development that is far more possible today than in the past. and if you go back to complexes like Rockefeller Center, you can see how successful these can be. However, there is no law that different architects can and should design the different parts of the same megaproject. there is no law that says that when you build something large scale that it needs to be a sterlize and homogenized environment.
 
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